Sugar Run

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 22 Jan 2019

Member Reviews

Published by Algonquin on January 8, 2019

Desperate people are still people. People who think of themselves as losers are still people. Those are among the lessons of Sugar Run, a novel of desperate people who seem destined to end up on the losing side of any conflict. For all the bad choices they make, the key characters in Sugar Run are the kind of people who would make good choices if they realized that they are not constrained by their pasts.

Jodi McCarty was a juvenile tried as an adult. After serving 18 years, she is unexpectedly released from a life sentence. Jodi hops on a Greyhound to southern Georgia to see Ricky Dulett. In the town where she thinks Ricky lives, Jodi meets Miranda Matheson, who has an on-and-off relationship with her baby’s daddy, Lee Golden, a redneck singer who performs at county fairs, having lost the rights to the songs that once gave him modest fame.

The plot involving Jodi, Miranda, and Ricky takes place in 2007. It alternates with scenes from 1988, when Jodi met a poker player named Paula, a woman who lives for a sweet run of cards, the sugar run that keeps gamblers coming back to the table. Their time together is a blur of drugs and highways — they have a Thelma and Louise approach to life — but Jodi and Paula promised to one day come back for Ricky, to take him away from the father who beats him. The reader eventually learns of Paula’s tragic past and her connection to Ricky.

In the 2007 story, we learn that Ricky has a dark side but is capable of surprising compassion, and that Jodi’s brother Dennis is a low-key drug dealer whose manipulative nature doesn’t stop him from occasionally behaving as a caring human being. Both characters create conflict in Jodi’s life, as does her desire to get back the family land that was auctioned to pay a tax debt while Jodi was in prison. Fracking is destroying the mountain around her, but fracking might be a metaphor for all the destruction that surrounds Jodi.

A number of subplots drive both stories forward, although the key question is whether Miranda and Jodi have a future together. They enjoy sleeping together, but hiding out with Miranda’s kids is stressful, and Jodi wonders whether Miranda still has a thing for Lee. She also wonders whether Miranda will lose her kids if the locals find out that she and Miranda are engaging in acts that the locals would regard as sinful.

Mesha Maren waits until near the novel’s end to reveal Jodi’s crime. That’s wise because, as in real life, after we come to like someone, it is difficult to unlike them because of a single bad act, at least if the act is directed at someone else.

To the extent that Sugar Run is a domestic drama, Jodi’s relationships are so unconventional that they never veer into soap opera territory. Local politics provides atmosphere, as environmentalists who oppose fracking are in conflict with people whose jobs depend on ruining water supplies.

Mesha Maren’s prose contributes the novel’s success. Here’s how she sets a scene: “Jodi couldn’t quite place their faces or remember specific names but she knew these women well. They’d always been there in the background with coffee and sticky, starchy foods. At the scene of every disaster and celebration they’d fill out the edges of the room with their pillowy housedresses and clouds of smoke. By the very generosity of their bodies they comforted the children and men.”

Sugar Run suggests that our lives have patterns and that, once made, an old pattern will easily shape a new life. Yet the story also suggests the possibility of gaining the strength and courage to break a bad pattern. There is always more to life if you make the effort to find it. Or perhaps the novel teaches that when you’ve hit bottom, there is nowhere to look but up. Regardless of what a reader might take from the novel, I suspect that most readers will find something worth taking.

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The genre of American Southern Gothic fiction is probably best described as belonging to a man. Its tales of immense poverty and lives ruined by drink and drugs are seemingly more topical when written in a river of testosterone. That’s why Mesha Maren’s debut novel Sugar Run is so mesmerizing. Not only is it written from a female’s point of view, but it has a duo of lesbian relationships at its heart. That said, it is a flawed first novel — the plot and point of view can be confusing and disjointed, flipping back and forth between characters. This means that the novel has you having to really pay close attention to it. Still, there are some rewards as the narrative moves at a jittery speed in its back half.

The story concerns a young woman who, at 18 years old and in the late 1980s, is sentenced to life in prison for an unspeakable crime committed when she and her older gay lover were on a bit of a spree knocking over poker games in Mexico and the southern United States for money, if not for kicks. Flash forward 20 years, and Jodi, the woman, has been released from prison. She makes her way down to Georgia to make amends with her lover’s brother, and meets up with a woman named Miranda who is the wife of a down-on-his-luck country singer with three kids in tow. Jodi hooks up with her and takes all of these people, kids included but save for the singer, up to her old home in West Virginia. There, she finds that things haven’t changed and staying out of a life of crime to be hard when the people and places are stacked against you.

A lot of the tension of the novel hinges on the “will she?” or “won’t she?” aspects of whether or not Jodi will screw up and throw what she’s gained — namely, her freedom — all away quickly. While the novel tries to point out that it’s nearly impossible to renounce your past with a Class B felony conviction on your record — meaning that it’s impossible to find any jobs, and make your way back into society — Jodi basically gets caught up in things not of her making. This is a bit frustrating, because it makes it all seem as though Jodi is just a vessel to be toyed with, and she holds zero responsibility for the things that are happening to her. It also is apparent that she doesn’t have much of a game plan for getting out of jail and staying clean.

However, where the novel does work is charting how the landscape of the American South has changed over the years, from being the moonshine territory of books such as Gods of Howl Mountain, to being a bit of a mecca for hard drugs, including crystal meth. It has also become an area that has moved on from less invasive coal mining practices to becoming fracking factories that are destroying the land. Setting this novel more or less in the present day — well, to be accurate, 2007, which isn’t quite so far away ago — has done a great service to the themes of the book. Basically, the more that things change, the more they stay the same — meaning, that people just can’t escape the life of the area, that bigger things or systemic injustices are in motion to be working against you. As someone who grew up in a small town, this is highly relatable to me.

However, as mentioned earlier, this is a novel that is confusing as heck to read. Characters are brought up and you have to basically figure out how they fit into the larger narrative of the piece, sometimes not doing so until most of the volume’s pages have flipped past you in the rear-view mirror. What’s more, the narrative shifts between Jodi’s point of view and Miranda’s — usually during the same scene — so, again, you have to be really keeping your eyes glued to the page to make sure you’re not missing the transitions. That all said and done, it’s clear that author Mesha Maren is gifted. She has a poetic lilt to her language (plus she quotes Tennyson at length at one point), so the writing is careful and considered, at least, save for the narrative jumps — which are probably intended to keep the reader on edge and always guessing. Those jumps don’t really work too well, but that is one of the few failings of the book.

The action does get ramped up a notch or two in the last half of Sugar Run, which more than makes up for a bit of a slow and languid first half. The ending is a bit inconclusive — we’re not entirely sure what’s going to happen to at least one of the main characters, but, again, this is probably intentional to show that nothing is for certain for this character. All in all, Sugar Run is a not wholly satisfying read, but it is a bit interesting. I read a good chunk of it over one or two sittings, so it does have a fire to it and it is propulsive. While I wish that it was a little friendlier to the casual reader and didn’t try to go over its head with narrative fireworks, Sugar Run is a book that is better than its early January release date would have you believe. (That time period being a dumping ground for books publishers generally don’t know what to do with.) It’s a slightly winning volume about all the things a person could lose — so those looking for a book about ex-convicts that has conviction could do no wrong by spending time within the covers of this tome.
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Quite the debut novel and a gifted author to watch. Not sure how she did it but Maren’s writing stalks the reader with its sense of foreboding. 

The book opens as Jodi McCarty leaves prison, released on a technicality from a life sentence for murder. The technicality? She was a minor when convicted. 17 at the time of the crime. She served eighteen years of her life sentence and we encounter her in chapter one on a Greyhound bus headed to find the brother of her murdered lover.   The book alternates in time between 20 years prior to her release and Jodi’s first love, Paula, a grifter of the first order and the present where Jodi, on parole, has fallen for another manipulative woman. The story is riddled with bad choices, West Virginia outcasts, drugs, and the lack of choices for someone coming out of prison and on parole. It also has spectacular writing, especially when Maren writes about the West Virginia countryside.
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This is a tough but meaningful read about a few bad choices leading to lifelong consequences. Dealing with themes of incarceration, poverty, substance abuse, sexuality, and addiction, it's definitely not light reading. It's hard to watch the characters continuously take the wrong turns, but the lyrical prose and interwoven storytelling is a very well done. At times the pacing feels off, but there's still a lot to take away from the characters and their experiences.
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I wavered between one star and two, finally gave it a two because SOME of the writing was good. There were places in the book where I stopped to savor the image or the language used, and then it was right back into the ho-hum-ness of the thing. The book is slow moving, the writing is uneven, the characters not ever fully developed, and I got tired of waiting for something to happen. I actually skimmed a whole lot of the book because I just wanted to get to the end.
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Blurbed by Scott McClanahan and Lauren Groff, agent Bill Clegg, published by Algonquin, Sugar Run is about a woman who was sentenced at 17 for murder and then without warning released and left without any resources to return home to West Virginia. The story alternates between 2007 ("present" day) and 1989 to fill in the gaps. I can't say I "enjoyed" it per se, that's not the right word for it, because the premise is dark, the main character is flawed and violent, and so is the world she is trying to navigate post-incarceration. I feel like it's supposed to be a character study but doesn't go quite deep enough for me - it's a little too event focused and holds too much back in an attempt to not finish the story of the crime she is accused of until the end of the book. But without knowing the truth of that event you can't really know the truth of that character, because you aren't privy to her full range of thoughts. So now I feel like I'm finished and confronted with processing all of the information I wish I'd had earlier. But that's probably a personal preference. I would still absolutely read her next book.

I do like the setting, the same sex relationships (and it's not about "coming out," but about living with a woman in rural America), it covers drugs and fracking and trying to survive after incarceration.

3.5 stars rounded up
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I enjoyed this up to a point but got a bit bogged down with all of the sadness of it. I am tired of lesbian stories being tragedies.
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Jodi Mccarty is 35 years old and has just been released from prison. She was incarcerated for seventeen years after shooting her girlfriend in a jealous rage. Her plan is to head back to West Virginia where she will live on her grandmother’s land. On her journey, she makes a stop in Georgia to help her late girlfriend's brother who grew up in an abusive home. There, she unexpectedly meets and quickly falls for a twenty-five-year-old drug addict named Miranda who is struggling to raise three young boys. Jodi collects the brother along with Miranda's family and brings them all to West Virginia in hopes of a brighter future.  

Upon her arrival, Jodi finds that her grandmother’s land is rundown and was sold while she was in prison. She also re-connects with her brother who lives on the edge as a heroin dealer.  With the stigma of being a felon it is difficult to get a job while her brothers activities are putting her and friends at risk. Despite her desire to do better and change her ways, she finds limited choices are conspiring to push her back into her old life. 

This is a debut novel by Mesha Maren. I loved ”Sugar Run” and was quickly drawn into the story because of the unique and gritty environment. The character’s development was complex and authentic as she teters between moving forward and backward .
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Note: This review was published in Mountain Times on Jan. 25, 2019

Hede: No sweet story: Mesha Maren's 'Sugar Run' is gritty and great

The notion that grit-lit is a gentlemen’s club is no fallacy.

Or wasn’t. That page turned in early January with the publication of debut novelist Mesha Maren's "Sugar Run" (Algonquin).

A subgenre of Southern Gothic, grit-lit is raw and real and populated largely by male writers.

Current artisans, including Michael Farris Smith, Wiley Cash, David Joy and Ron Rash, craft characters who, in the case of men, operate under moral codes of their own or, in the case of women, are left morally bankrupt after a lifetime of abuse.

The settings of these lifetimes are not unexpected: Trailer parks, brothels, casinos, pawn shops, and anything, really, that feels like the abandonment of dreams is where you’ll find these men and women.

That sign above the gates of hell in Dante's "Inferno?" That sign was made for stories such as these.

Here, characters live lives that are bleak and desperate. In novel after novel, these men and women attempt to claw life from generations of bad decisions, abuse, poverty, fatalism and despair.

They rarely succeed.

In the end, they search for redemption. They more rarely find that. And when they do, it is never the type of absolution you and I would pray for.

Enter into this fray Maren, a novelist who didn’t get the memo that this particular brand of misery and moral ambiguity is for boys only.

Which is a grand thing, because if she had, we wouldn’t have this great and gritty novel — and proof that grit-lit isn’t a product of chromosomes, but of a true moral compass.

In 2015, Maren won the Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize, and so it is little surprise that “Sugar Run” is a homecoming story.

Jodi McCarty spent 18 years in prison for murdering her girlfriend, Paula Dulett. Now, at age 35, she's on parole and heading to the ravaged hills of West Virginia’s coal country, her once-upon-a-time home.

On the way, she will attempt to fulfill a teenage pledge: the rescue of her dead girlfriend’s brother from a lifetime of abuse. This is a side story.

And, that the brother is less-than-grateful for his release, that on the journey Jodi will fall for the mother of three, that, as the story moves back in time we find the closest to happiness Jodi ever was was when she and Paula were traveling the country, living off winnings from petty crimes and gambling (a good poker hand is a “sweet sugar run”) are more sidesteps.

Jodi, hopelessly trying to get home to the land of her memory and grandmother, Effie, is the real story.

True to the form, the land and story she finds is not what she remembers.

An example: Effie had once told Jodi that “come winter, all the good-size caves were claimed by bears … Jodi loved to picture that, all the crooks and crannies of the land under her feet filled with sleeping bears.”

Now, the crooks and crannies are claimed by poverty and drugs. Worse, the bears are not asleep. Suddenly, Jodi’s road to redemption more closely resembles the fracking that blights her homestead.

Tension such as this permeates and propels the best salvation stories. This is so in “Sugar Run."

Under Maren’s skillful handling, strained and fractured lives reflect a segment of our society easily discarded. In so doing, Maren offers both a compelling tale of deliverance, and a story that urges us to question our own concept of true north.
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Dark and richly nuanced, this is a novel which probes the lives of its characters with an unblinking eye, delivering powerful and poignant emotional portraits.
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At 17, Jodi McCarty was sentenced to life in prison for manslaughter. 18 years later she finds herself suddenly released. She tries to return home to West Virginia, falling in love with young mother Miranda along the way and trying to escape the way her past always seems to circle back on her. 

This book, y’all. How is it not in everyone’s hands yet? Maren captures the simultaneous freedom and oppression of rural life with writing that is beautifully lush, yet never flowery. SUGAR RUN has the most solid sense of place I’ve seen in a long time, nailing that way summer in Appalachia can close in on you. You feel submerged in that heat and trapped in the past with Jodi. 

This book is all about cycles and patterns and that slow realization that you may never escape the path you’re on. Some readers may find themselves frustrated with the way life seems to happen to Jodi, but to me it rang true with the way people’s options are narrowed with every system working against them: the prison system, parole, rural economies, drug trade, homophobia. The way Jodi felt the “choiceless” life of prison followed her out was so visceral. Then add to that how unequipped she was to live as an adult outside of prison for the first time - she may be repeating patterns but she was also set up to fail on multiple fronts, and it was so painful to watch that spool out slowly. (Note: I think this book might make a good pairing with DOPESICK if you want the nonfiction version of this story). 

My heart broke over and over again for the ways each person lost control of their lives, from Jodi as a manipulated teenager to Miranda’s unhappy marriage to little Kaleb witnessing these dysfunctions. Cycles repeating across lives, families, and generations. 

I know it’s so early, but I think SUGAR RUN could be a top book of the year contender for me.
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I think I am the only one who didn't love this book. It was gritty and real, but not for me. The writing seemed forced and harsh.
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Having grown up in West Virginia, I'm naturally drawn to works that feature the state prominently, as a character in and of itself.
Mesha Maren's Sugar Run does not disappoint.  In order for a novel set in the Mountain State to resonate with me, it needs to straddle that fine balance of writing about West Virginia's hardscrabble existence while simultaneously celebrating the beautiful landscapes and people who live there.  
Jodi McCarty is out of jail, after having spent 18 years imprisoned for manslaughter. Her priorities after being released include helping the brother of her ex-lover and to then return to West Virginia to live her life on the land bequeathed from her grandmother, Effie.
Jodi didn't factor Miranda into her plans.  Two damaged women working together to find some sort of redemption out of their lives fraught with potholes and problems to solve.
This novel contains beautiful prose and is a compulsive page-turner.  I loved it!
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3 stars  Thank you to NetGalley and Algonquin Books for the chance to read and review this ARC. Publication date January 8, 2019. 

I am not sure exactly what it was that I was expecting or waiting for in this book, but it never seemed to materialize. For a debut novel there was plenty of action in the story, some good character development and a plausible plot, but for me it just missed the mark.  

The story of a young Appalachian girl imprisoned for manslaughter. Once released she headed home to claim the land that had been in her family for generations, only to find that the homestead had been sold out from under her and the mountain was deeply involved in the fracking process.  Hooking up with a tumultuous group of people, Jodie was never at peace. 

I didn't care for the abrupt ending of the story and felt that there were still strings left dangling. I came away from this novel unfulfilled and a bit disappointed.
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I did not enjoy this book.  I am the type to ALWAYS finish a book, whether I like it or not, and I really struggled with this one.  I actually gave up.  It was so slow and the author simply did not make me care enough about the characters to plod through in order to find out what happens to them.  This one goes on the very short shelf of books I never finished.
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3.5 stars rounded down. Good read - I finished this in two days, which, with my schedule lately, is something of a feat. Strong storytelling featuring a sympathetic if not at times baffling character whose judgment was questionable but whose heart is (generally) in the right place these days. There's a lot of tragedy here but it ends with a lot of hope.
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This one will make you think- it should make you think- about how we as a society deal with offenders.  Jodi has spent more time in jail than she has in the "outside world."  She comes from a town which was fading when she left and is even less prosperous now.  She meets Miranda and her children and then young Rickey and manages to form a family with them. Unfortunately, drugs invade her hoped for peace and things devolve.  This moves back and forth in time to tell Jodi's story.  This is bleakly realistic and makes you wish there was something to be done.  Thanks to the publisher for the ARC.  Try this for well written insight into a world most of us turn away from.
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An interesting story of a southern girl who gets caught up in dangerous situations, and winds up in jail. When she is released from prison many years later, she struggles to make better decisions.
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Just finished Sugar Run by Mesha Maren and trying to catch my breath again. It is a beautiful, epic novel about redemption, rebuilding, and the ups and downs of trying to create your own family.
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It is difficult, if not impossible, for newly released convicts to get back on their feet after their sentences. The lucky ones find jobs and have support networks. Unlucky ones, like Jodi in Mesha Maren’s Sugar Run, have no guidance after they are set at liberty. All Jodi has is an appointment with a parole officer, a $400 loan from her family, and a self-imposed mission to find a friend from eighteen years prior with whom she has unfinished business. Jodi was a very young girl when she went in, with no advanced education or job skills; she was in prison for longer than she was free. All that said, I think any reader can agree that the choices Jodi makes after she finishes her sentence are definitely not the right choices.

We meet Jodi on the bus from Jaxton Prison, where she has just finished serving eighteen years for manslaughter. She has a vague plan to go back to the town her lover, Paula, was from in Georgia to pick up the lover’s younger brother, to save him from an abusive family. Long flashbacks slowly reveal what happened between Jodi and Paula that landed Jodi in prison for so long. In between the flashbacks, we watch Jodi as she makes one bad decision after another: she picks up a drug addict with three kids who is in the middle of a long, emotional drama with her musician husband; she helps said drug addict kidnap those kids; she squats on family land that was auctioned off for taxes; she lets her brother store drugs and more on the property. There’s a lot of alcohol and a lot of drugs in this novel, which absolutely does not help things.

Sugar Run depicts a train wreck of a life. There are so many points in Jodi’s story where, if she’d had a bit more perspective and a bit more of a vision of what she wanted her life to be, Jodi might have been okay. Jodi might also have been okay if she’d had a functional support system, if she hadn’t returned to the economically depressed mountains of West Virginia, if she hadn’t fallen in lust with a drug addict. But then, Jodi might also have been okay right from the very beginning if it weren’t for her jealously and complete inability to say no to people who want her to do illegal things for them. Which brings me back around to the question about whether or not it’s possible for convicts to have any kind of life after serving time. Is it Jodi’s circumstances or her personality that landed her in trouble? Is it her situation or her inability to learn from her mistakes that keeps her from a legal kind of life? Sugar Run doesn’t give us any answers along with these questions, but it offers plenty of food for thought about readers curious about prison and judicial reform or life in Appalachia. This is an excellent book club read.
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